The Last Birthday
Under the rigid gaze of the giant bronze head mounted on its granite block, workers crissed their morning trails like ants across the square.
Samantha Freeman alighted from the red and yellow tram that brought her from her rented rooms on the outskirts of the city and fell in step with them towards the Straße der Nationen. It was 7h15 on a bright day in August, her first at Transinter, the State Translation Office. As she passed the block of granite, she winked up at the bearded face cast in bronze. Karl Marx did not wink back.
She pushed open the heavy glass door of number 32. Making her way towards the large oak desk at the far end of the grey marbled foyer, she swore under her breath that she would have to stick cork tips on to her clicking heels. She heard her heart tap against her ribcage as if echoing off the marble columns in the icy quiet. They certainly knew how to put you in place; the desk seemed to stretch away the closer she got.
She stopped. She looked to the stairway coiling with its wrought-iron banister down behind the left-hand side of the massive desk. A lanky man in his early thirties came down, his jeans-clad legs taking the steps two at a time. Peter Held, the driving force behind her internship with Transinter, moved towards her, arms wide in greeting.
„Samantha. It’s good to see you.“ He brushed his cheek against hers, once left then right, kissing the air in the customary greeting of their Geneva days. „You found your way all right?“
„Yes, just followed the flow,“ she grinned and ran a hand through her dark blonde bob as she moved out of his arms. „It’s good to see you, too, Peter. Well, here goes. My first day on the job.“
Peter ushered her past the figure seated behind the desk. Samantha noticed the soft and ruddy cheeks, but could not tell whether the uniform clothed a young man or woman. Indeed she wondered whether the figure was real as it had not moved since she had entered. They mounted the stairs. Samantha was awed by the wide corridors and long hallways on the first floor.
„So much space, Peter. It’s marvellous,“ she said.
„Don’t speak too soon,“ he said, a smile sleeting across his lips as he opened the third door on the right-hand side.
„Welcome to Transinter.“
Samantha stood in the doorway and stared. She felt her ankles dragging downward in disbelief. Where the hall and foyer had been wide and empty, cooled in marble on floors and ceiling, the office before her was an elongated cubby hole in contrast. Five wooden desks were lined up perpendicular along one grey wall. They were the sort of desks that could fetch an interesting price as a 1930’s „antique“ at the Geneva flea market – that is if someone took the trouble to do a strip and varnish job on them. Two double-paned windows opened on to the square; Samantha knew she would have to stand on top of the desk to see the blighting trails of workers below.
„Remember when I used to sleep on that little desk in the attic, Peter?“
„Old Herr Schwarz always saved the three-liners for you. But he never could bring himself to wake you. And then we’d get landed with them.“
„You make it sound as if it was my fault I had nothing to do,“ Samantha pouted.
„Well, you won’t have that here,“ Peter said.
There was just enough room to pass down a corridor between the desks and a length of dark-grey metal bookshelves masking the lighter grey of the opposite wall. The floorboards creaked with every step as if to punctuate the sighs she dared not heave.
„I warned you it would not be luxury,“ Peter said. „But you will have work. That’s what you wanted, didn’t you?“ he grinned.
Yes, that was what she had wanted. To work, to learn, to use those years of study and not lose them to the whims of strings pulled by fingers she did not know. She shook her head as if to shake out any wisps of disappointment. She would manage, she thought. Anyway, once into the work, she wouldn’t notice the dreary office. She could even add some cheerful touches to her workspace, the third desk, firmly flanked on either side.
And so she settled in to the team of five. Only three were ever around at a time, with two being on interpreting assignments. The three were Peter, Gudrun, a recent graduate who had moved over from Leipzig, and Samantha, the only foreigner, the only English mother tongue. At Transinter, one did everything – interpreting, translating, typing, filing. That part of it Samantha liked, there were no elite. Or so she thought.
On her way across the square one Monday morning in late August, she noticed three men huddled together. She assumed that each one would soon be on his way. But the threesome remained, like reeds, their feet planted firmly, their bodies swaying to the whisper of their conversation. The following day, they were there again. The next day there were two groups of three, then foursomes, groups of five. The following week she was surprised to see solitary tourists, cameras slung around their necks or held to shoot the local colour – or lack thereof.
It was late for tourists. Summer was almost over and apart from Karl Marx himself and the Red Tower, the city’s oldest building with its burnt red brick guarding the other end of the square, there was nothing much to interest tourists. But they kept snapping their shots of the huddlers that kept assembling every day of the week until there were about forty or fifty people in groups of threes and fours.
One morning as she crossed the square on her way to work, one of the tourists spun around to face her with his lens aimed straight. The shutter clicked and in that moment Samantha felt what an aborigine must have felt when the white man tried to steal his soul. She shuddered as the tourist turned away, her identity his booty.
Then one day, they all were gone. Just like that. And the square again belonged to the workaday insect traffic. Samantha almost forgot about the groups until they suddenly reappeared in twos and threes in the first week of September to disappear again one week later as suddenly as they had assembled. But that time, no tourists clicking shutters.
Indian summer, a perfect time for getting things ready and having a party. And the city was preparing for an important celebration. Scaffolding was mounted to hold birthday flags and banners, flower pots to hold late bloomers, chrysanthemums, those large flowers, the favourites of European cemeteries. It was going to be a big event like every 40th birthday always is.
Forty years. Someone had once said that the years before forty were just a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Guests had come from Bulgaria, France, Poland, the Soviet Union, Italy and Britain. Seated at the festive tables on the second floor of the town hall building in a patchwork of internationalism, they had come from distant twinned towns to Karl-Marx-Stadt to celebrate the 7 October 1989, the 40th birthday of the GDR.
Samantha whispered translations of welcome speeches and acknowledgements to the assembled party guests. She sat at the long damask-covered table between leaning ears and mouths, separated by tongues that forked in their beliefs. Instead of „Happy Birthday“, a string quartet played Händel’s „Feuerwerksmusik“. It was a sign of the new „rapprochement“. Five years earlier, those fireworks, written in honour of an English monarch, could never have been entertained. That night though, they lacked the pomp and majesty of the brass. Samantha felt twitching and edging about in seats on either side of her as the rising chant of „Freiheit“ seeped in firmly from outside through the sparkle of the strings.
The guests lurched left and right as if trying to escape an irritating insect without acknowledging its existence. The chant floated in on a glow of candles caught in a haze beneath the window sill of the classic Rathaus building.
A worsted web of fear held the gathering in check like paper blotting ink from seeping free. Samantha smelt the tension all around her, as if the foreign guests were unwittingly exuding a skunk-like odour of protection – or was it just that their deodorants were no longer a match for the late hour? They knew they would leave the following day to return to the remaining twin, their duty done in the name of socialism – and anyway, they had just come for the party.
Samantha felt the build-up. Actions had already started in Leipzig, in Dresden. In Karl-Marx-Stadt itself, the old name, Chemnitz, had been whispered about in the coffee houses.
The groups she had seen in the square had all been part of a quiet restrained movement, protesting like a grasp beyond quickening sands. Peter had told her that, despite what one heard in the West, the citizens of his country had the right to apply for permission to leave. Those in the square had either been refused or had just put in an application – for refusal.
„And those tourists snapping them. I wouldn’t want to take pictures of people huddling about – some souvenir,“ Samantha had said.
„They weren’t tourists, Samantha. They were from the Stasi. They were taking photos of the huddlers. They’ll find a use for them.“
„Peter, the other day … one of them snapped me,“ Samantha paled.
„You’ll be all right. You’re a foreigner. You’re clean,“ he said, but his voice had become flat like day-old Coca Cola.
Sitting in the immense hall with its candelabra of cut glass from the famous Jena factory crowning the stucco ceiling, Samantha felt the progression of events and quietly thanked her tangled roots for not having chosen this to be her country.
The congregation outside broke up softly with the snuffing of candles.
It left the visitors on the inside the chance to leave with face intact, and eyes unseeing. Already the next day people would lie prostrate on railroad tracks to block trains packed past the roof, forcing places to any Eastern border. They would close the borders. Those that got through would claw their way to Western consulates.
Samantha picked up her papers, slipped into her jacket and hugged herself as if to stop her cocoon of foolish freedom from unravelling in a country close to crumbling.
The story deals with the last birthday of the GDR. Parts of it appear in Sylvia’s novel „Tillandsia“ which is currently under consideration.